The English Civil Wars had their immediate origins in the attempts of Charles I to impose elements of the Anglican liturgy, including use of the Book of Common Prayer, on the fiercely Calvinist Scottish Church. These attempts to conform the Scottish Kirk to English practices was naturally met with fierce resistance by the Scots, who, at a meeting of a large number of nobles, burgesses, lairds, and ministers held in Edinburgh in February 1638, endorsed a petition known as the National Covenant, which sought to abolish all forms of episcopacy in the Scottish Kirk. The petition was circulated and received wide support; it was endorsed by a General Assembly of the Kirk held in Glasgow in November 1638, which removed all bishops from office and asserted the power of the Scottish people over the authority of the Crown in matters of religion. As a result, Charles felt himself forced to raise an army to march on Scotland. He twice attempted to crush the Scottish Covenanter armies, in 1639 and again in 1640, but the Royalist armies were unsuccessful in fighting against a force that comprised men energized by a defense of their faith. Indeed, the Scottish armies were so successful that in August 1640 they were able to take both Newcastle and Durham. As a result, a temporary peace, the Treaty of Ripon, was signed in 1641 on terms extremely generous to Scotland. Among its terms were that Scottish armies would continue to occupy Northumberland and Durham while being paid £850 per day until a final settlement was reached.

Although Charles had no intention of permitting his Scottish subjects to continue in a state of rebellion, he was faced with the difficulty of raising funds for another army. In addition, he was confronted with the financial obligations imposed on him by the Treaty of Ripon. Attempts to borrow from his brother‐​in‐​law, the King of France, and even from the Pope proved unsuccessful. As a result, the King was forced to call Parliament into session in the fall of 1640. He had previously summoned Parliament in April 1640, prior to his second foray into Scotland, hoping that they would provide the necessary funds to prosecute the war. Although there is some evidence to support the notion that the Commons were prepared to eventually vote the requested subsidies even though they opposed the issues over which the conflict was fought, they refused to do so until Charles had first dealt with a number of grievances regarding the King’s political and religious policies. Parliament had not been summoned for 11 years, and its list of complaints was lengthy and extensive. So unnerved was the King by Parliament’s demands, however, that, against the advice of his favorite, the Earl of Strafford, he dissolved Parliament (later known as the Short Parliament) after only 3 weeks.

When Parliament again assembled in the fall, the strength of feeling against the Crown was truly intense; as a result, the Long Parliament (as the Parliament called in November 1640 was later known) was extremely hostile to the King’s request for funds. They were outraged that he maintained that he ruled over Great Britain by divine right and that he had presumed to act independently of the wishes of his Parliament and his subjects. He persisted in levying customs duties without renewed Parliamentary consent. In 1634, he had extended his authority to collect ship money (previously levied only on port cities) to the whole kingdom. Additionally, there appears little question that Charles had abused his authority by relying on the various prerogative courts, the most infamous of which was the Court of Star Chamber, to stifle political opposition. Finally, his High Church leanings and his flirtation with Roman Catholicism had successfully alienated the overwhelming portion of his subjects. Both the Independents and Presbyterians were particularly incensed at his attempts to impose his Anglo‐​Catholic views on both the Scots and the English dissenters.

The Long Parliament immediately enacted a series of sweeping reforms that radically altered the relation between the Crown and Parliament. It abolished the prerogative courts, among them the Court of Star Chamber, and freed those imprisoned by their verdicts. It enacted the Triennial Act, which mandated that no more than 3 years could elapse between Parliamentary sessions; by the terms of another act, it prohibited the dissolution of Parliament without its own consent. Customs duties and ship money were to be levied only with Parliamentary authorization. Both Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, and William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, favorites of the Crown whom the Parliamentarians particularly detested, were impeached; Laud was imprisoned and Strafford was executed.

Charles appeared prepared to suffer all these reforms; however, despite his seeming acquiescence, he was still distrusted by the Parliamentary party. When the Irish rebelled against English rule in October 1641 and it was felt necessary to raise an army to deal with them, the Parliamentarians refused to turn control of these forces to the King, fearing that he might use them against Parliament. Instead, under the leadership of John Pym, one of the most outspoken members of the radical Puritan forces, Parliament issued a Grand Remonstrance, indicting the King’s political and ecclesiastical policies and assuming direct control of the army. In retaliation, in January 1642, Charles attempted to arrest five of its more outspoken members, including Pym. The attempt proved a failure, but it signaled the fact that a permanent breach between King and Parliament was inevitable. In March, the Long Parliament decreed that its own ordinances were valid even without royal assent. On August 22, 1642, after Charles raised his standard at Nottingham, civil war between the Crown and Parliament—at least those members of Parliament who had abandoned their Royalist sympathies—began.

The Parliamentary army, known as the New Model Army, was inspired and directed by Oliver Cromwell, a member of the gentry and a strict and zealous Puritan. Under his direction, Parliamentary forces (the Roundheads) were able to hold the Royalists (the Cavaliers) at bay and, at the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644 and at Naseby in July 1645, imposed crushing defeats on the King’s armies. The fate of the King, however, had been effectively sealed in September 1643 when Parliament formed an alliance, a Solemn League and Covenant, with the Scots, whereby Presbyterian ritual and church government would become mandatory in England. It was imposed by Parliamentary ordinance on everyone in England and Wales, and all those holding command or office under Parliament were required to sign it. Its provisions, however, were resisted by English Independents (Congregationalists) and by a substantial portion of the New Model Army.

In April 1646, when Charles’s cause failed, he fled from Oxford and placed himself in the hands of the Scottish army, who in turn surrendered him to Parliament in exchange for being paid what was owed them for their participation in the war. A year later, the New Model Army, in disagreement with Parliament over its Presbyterian sympathies, managed to secure the King, who quickly entered into secret negotiations with the Scots to finally and securely establish Presbyterianism as the religion of England. The upshot was that Cromwell decisively defeated a Scottish army at Preston in August 1648 and in December occupied London, which the Army then purged of its Presbyterian members. On January 30, 1649, the King, found guilty of treason, was beheaded.

The events of 1640–1649 are often referred to as the Puritan Revolution. However, these events and their outcome were not solely—perhaps not even predominantly—religious in character. It is true that Parliament was successful in crushing Laud’s attempts to impose religious uniformity throughout England, but the revolutionary religious reforms were to prove temporary. Indeed, conditions under the Commonwealth, which replaced the monarchy, were in some ways harsher than they had been earlier. Of greater significance were the long‐​term political changes that emerged during these years, which were far reaching. They included permanently laying to rest the notion that the sovereign ruled by divine right, which Charles and his father James I had so zealously embraced, limiting the appointment of ministers to those in whom Parliament had confidence, and reaffirming the provision of Magna Carta that the monarch may not impose any tax without the approval of the people’s representatives. Equally important, the political and religious ferment through which England passed during that decade spawned a variety of political groups, one of which was clearly libertarian in character—the Levellers.

The Levellers, who strongly supported the establishment of a republic and the institution of universal manhood suffrage, adumbrated elements of the political philosophy of John Locke, including the notion that all men were born equally free and that they were all possessed of certain natural rights. Despite their demands that all men be treated alike, they were not, as some have claimed, early socialists who sought a redistribution of private property. Indeed, they called for increased safeguards for property and condemned the granting of monopolies by the government. John Lilburne, their chief spokesman, maintained that the Levellers were “the truest and constantest assertors of liberty and propriety.”

For a time, their movement was extremely popular, both in the New Model Army and among the residents of London. However, following the abolition of the monarchy, Lilburne and the movement’s other leaders were arrested and confined to the Tower of London awaiting trial. Found innocent of supporting anarchism and the destruction of private property, they were freed. However, their movement, as just and noble as it was, soon faded, not to be resurrected until certain of its elements appeared a half century later.

Further Readings

Coward, Barry. The Stuart Age: England, 1603–1714. London: Longman, 1994.

Firth, C. H. Oliver Cromwell and the Role of the Puritans in England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1900.

Gregg, Pauline. King Charles I. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Hill, Christopher. Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.

———. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. London: Penguin Books, 1973.

Kenyon, J. P. The Stuarts: A Study in English Kingship. London: Severn House, 1977.

Trevelyan, George M. England under the Stuarts. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2002.

Ronald Hamowy
Originally published